Pollyanna’s Pollyfilla Talks Queer Cabaret and Political Anxiety

Broadway Baby’s Gordon Douglas met Adam Castle, the host of Pollyanna to talk about the outrageous, late-night queer cabaret that’s on everybody’s minds.

As well as directing and hosting Pollyanna, Castle is the director of Edinburgh Artists’ Moving Image Festival, an annual festival for the celebration of moving image. In recognition of their efforts in both of these, Castle won The Creative Edinburgh Leadership Award in 2016.

Having experienced Pollyanna last year, Gordon was eager to return to the cabaret once again. The morning after the show, Gordon and Adam discuss: the draw for performers to share their work in a social, cabaret format; how to provide space and opportunity for an audience to communally exercise their political anxieties; and the origins of Pollyanna’s host Pollyfilla.

Gordon Douglas (GD): Hello, my name’s Gordon Douglas and I’m thrilled to be joined by Adam Castle, who as their alter-ego, Pollyfilla, is the star and host to the marvellous Pollyanna which takes place at Paradise Palms from 11pm every night Sundays-Thursdays for the rest of the Fringe. Adam, thank you very much for joining me today.

Adam Castle (AC): Thanks for having me.

GD: Not at all, I guess a good way to start would be for you to maybe introduce our readers to the show.

AC: So, I host a show called Pollyanna. It’s a late night cabaret, hosted by Pollyfilla, a character that I become for the night. Pollyfilla is a feral, drag, queer creature. There’s lots of PVC, skin, smeared makeup, and messiness that is reflected in what is always a messy, sweaty, trashy kind of night. Each night is a different host of acts: drag, queer performance, performance art, a bit of comedy. It happens in Paradise Palms which has a very relaxed vibe, rather than a sit-down-and-watch-five-acts-for-an-hour theatre. It’s more like having a drink, and every while you’ll be assaulted by something on stage.

GD: You’ll be forced to get out your seats, or forced to dance around as Diane Chorley stands on a commandeered table in the middle of the floor. You say at the beginning of the night, that it is the ‘queeriest, trashiest night’, and you certainly live up to those expectations. It was outrageous at points and totally great. Let’s talk first about the programme. Last night, we had Georgia Tasda, Night Bus, Jezza Bellend, Desert Storm and Diane Chorley.

AC: And Theresa May too.

GD: Ah yes Theresa. There was a really great, guest appearance by our wonderful Prime Minister, we’ll get to her in a bit. Before that though, you say the programme differs from night to night. How does that programme come together?

AC: I know you expressed before we started the interview that you had this hope that I’d met these characters in seedy bars. Unfortunately Gordon, putting together a trashy cabaret is actually a very organised process. It’s produced by Annlouise Butt, with assistant production from Carrie Alderton, and then I direct and host it. It’s a mixture of people replying to our open call, or us getting on contacts which acts we find in the Fringe brochure or from shows we have seen. Some acts in the Fringe say that the spaces they get to perform in can be quite sterile (lecture theatres that are re-appropriated, or bunker-type spaces) and they come to us and say that this is the kind of space that they want to perform in, a social space distinct from the more typical theatre conventions. We’re hosted by Paradise Palms which is a lovely venue, and has much more of a cabaret feel. I always imagine cabaret is first and foremost a night out where performance happens amidst the confusion of drinks and partying. A lot of the performers really gel with that vibe.

GD: I think the Fringe theatre format could potentially be quite limiting to some of those performances. In the case of Pollyanna at Paradise Palms, the host and the variety add to the already spectacular environment that the audience create. From a people-watching perspective, it’s great, because other people in the crowd are just amazing too. You said the programme can be quite flexible to people coming to Edinburgh for a month that sees the city transform into such a nexus for a whole variety of different performers. Either people are traveling through with a show; or up to see a show; or with friends; it makes sense to work with that. Obviously, the programme changes each night depending on who is in town and which works sit well with each other, but one think that recurs each night is a segment called Theresa: the Musical. Maybe you can talk a little about the musical format in the context of the programme you put together.

AC: Well last year we had Brexit: The Musical… and of all the people to rip us off, this year a lawyer has produced Brexit the Musical!

GD: I know! I totally I saw posters for that this year and I thought ‘maybe Adam’s trying something different this year.’

[both laugh]

AC: It’s written by someone called Chris Bryant, who’s a Brexit lawyer. I’m sure the musical is very good, and I’m definitely wanting to see it. In the context of Pollyanna, the musical segment we create almost became a little bit of a joke. It feels like all the shows that are on at the Fringe are Northern male comedians and things like ‘x’ the Musical, so I thought I’d put on Brexit: the Musical last year. I mean its not really a musical, its just a couple of songs that I have changed some of the lyrics too... And that’s what counts as a musical in Pollyanna! I don’t want to give away too many spoilers for this year’s Theresa: the Musical, but we get people on the stage to play the parts of political characters. There’s some quite stupid things related to political events that involve things going in the various genitalia of Pollyfilla. The idea of that, is firstly that it’s stupid and it’s funny, but it’s also an opportunity to be cathartic. We’re playing with political events and allowing them to be a communal release. It certainly sits within the history of queer performance which is so much about the body, and sites of pleasure in the body becoming more playful and not hidden or frightening. I think there’s something in this idea of queer performance that is silly and fun, but it’s also something that clearly has a politics in it. Having a space where people can get together and enjoy slightly ridiculous queer, trashy things alongside trying to release about our communal, political strife, is really important.

GD: I get the feeling during it, that the audience feel like they’re communally subverting the system– seeing the same anxieties in other people’s faces, and having a platform to let it all out. There was a group in America during the Great Depression, that identified with this method called The Living Newspaper. The only way they could deal with their economic and political fear was by playing out stories in the newspaper everyday in an attempt to digest the absolute tragedy they were living through. There’s a lot of parallels between that and this kind of communal, queer, political performance that drag and queer artists are able to approach with such comedy. Let’s talk for a moment about the host, Pollyfilla. What is the origin of Pollyfilla, how did they come to be?

AC: In the beginning, the show, Pollyanna started out as quite different to what it is now. I set it up with another artist Emma Finn, and it was a monthly performance night where people could try out what they wanted. The character then was not as together as it is now, it wasn’t Pollyfilla. Things snowballed, and we ended up being hosted by Paradise Palms, a venue with an already inbuilt, cabaret feel. We decided to call our night a cabaret, because we liked the mixture of acts, the word conjured. I hadn’t come up with a name, and I thought for a long time about it. My original idea was to be called Fridge and I sometimes regret that, because Fridge is a really great name. And then I came up with this other name, Pollyfilla, something that represented the filler for the night, filling the gaps in between the performances. It’s sort of suggestive, and it’s also just sort of practical – I like this contrast. This was really important to the feeling of the night, we love hosting performers how have characters with an interesting concept and stories to tell. And I think there should be some element of politics to each act too, whether it’s explicit in stating it’s politics, or by discomforting the norms of gender or sexuality. Pollyfilla isn’t a character defined through the ‘I’m a man wearing a dress’ vibe, that vibe just doesn’t excite me because I wear a dress anyway when I go on a night out. My character is not really a she or a he, it’s just a drag creature, associated with a different kind of drag, a creature who’s been ‘dragged through the dirt’ just before the show, here for you.

GD: Of course, one element of drag that has been popularised through television is the lip-sync. The night I was there was a lip-sync extravaganza – It’s not something I see a lot of in Edinburgh outside the Fringe.

AC: About two years ago, there was just Dive Cabaret who were doing stuff, and then Pollyanna started, and then Such a Drag started. There are a few nights now, Alice Rabbit does a show once a week at CC Blooms, lots of drag stuff there. There’s definitely more things beginning, but there’s definitely still a lack. I wish sometimes that we still did our shows monthly throughout the year, but somehow it just didn’t happen. It takes a very different kind of energy to do something monthly, rather than every day for a month. They’re equally hard in different ways.

GD: There’s a maintenance that needs to be in place to sustain something over that year long cycle. The endurance of Pollyanna during the Fringe is totally applaudable, and thank you so much for taking time out of that schedule to speak to me. Just to reiterate, Pollyanna takes place from Sundays - Thursdays, from 11pm at Paradise Palms.

AC: And it’s free.

GD: And it’s free! Thanks Adam,

AC: Thank you.

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